Shannon Thomas Perich is curator of The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon, which presents for the first time photos of president-elect John F. Kennedy and his family from a 1961 Harper’s Bazaar photo session. The exhibition, a version of which SITES is circulating to six venues nationwide, opened to great acclaim last fall at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Shannon also wrote the companion book of the same title (Collins Design, 2007).
Shannon is associate curator in the National Museum of American History’s Photographic History Collection, which consists of about 200,000 photographs and some 12,000 pieces of apparatus representing over 2,000 photographers, studios, and companies.
Q: What’s the most common reaction you’ve had to the photographs?
A: If people are of a certain age, they will recall where they were when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Many people connect with Jackie and respond to her sense of style, polish, and sophistication that she brought to American culture and fashion. Others feel nostalgic about that time period. Many young people are equally enthralled with the photographs and have a chance see the Kennedys is a new light.
Whether we know it or not, we all bring a lot of knowledge about the Kennedys to our viewing experience. The experience is full of dramatic irony because we know the story of how three of the four lives end. Here they are, Kennedy about to inaugurated in three weeks; Jackie is young and beautiful; Caroline is an innocent three year old; John Jr. is just barely six weeks old. There is so much anticipation and hope for what lies beyond January 3, 1961. But we know John Jr. will bury his father on his third birthday, then suffer his own tragic death. We know of Jackie’s challenges, successes, and death.
Q: Where were these photos originally seen?
A: This exhibition is the first time that all of these photographs have been seen together. Originally, only six appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1961. Recent research revealed that four more appeared in the January 1964 Harper’s Bazaar along with "Sailing to Byzantium" (that’s the one that starts, "That is no country for old men.") by William Butler Yeats as a memorial to Kennedy.
Q: What does Avedon want us to know about the Kennedys?
A: When you look at the photographs as they appeared in their original photo essay context as Richard Avedon’s "Observations" in Harper’s Bazaar, the set of six photographs have to been seen together. As a magazine viewer, you would see them in sets of two as a spread. There is no text with the photographs except for the title of the section and each of the Kennedy family member’s names. And although we know Jackie is wearing dresses by Oleg Cassini and Givenchy, this is not a fashion spread. These six photographs, made and arranged by Avedon, are about what he has observed.
Briefly, the first set suggests that Kennedy will be a paternalistic president. The second set refers to the values of family and hope for the future. The third set present President-elect and Mrs. Kennedy as regal, calm, and confident. We are expected to feel good about this first family in the White House and that this president will take care of the nation.
Look for Part II of Ann Carper's interview with Shannon Perich next week . . .